The Parents' Review
A Monthly Magazine of Home-Training and Culture
"Education is an atmosphere, a discipline, a life."
The Child Depicted by Poets
by Mrs. Stanton.
paper read before the Cheltenham Branch of the British Child-Study Society.
Once, when discussing the origin of man, Lord Beaconsfield remarked that man was said to be descended either from an ape or an angel. "Now, I am on the side of angels," he concluded, and Punch followed this up by a cartoon, representing the sophisticated-looking Dizzy, in a white robe, and with a sprouting pair of wings. What poet is not also on the side of the angels when children are the subject of his song? All agree to regard the time of infancy as an angelic age haunted by whispers "from that imperial palace whence we came," and yet sometimes, to much-tired teachers and relatives, the youngsters seem to be such utter monkeys! The parents of little children often find it hard to be enthusiastic about their babies until they are asleep; a certain amount of calm, of distance, is needed to bring out the halo round the baby's brow. The struggle in the parental mind between the exalted and the prosaic view is humourously expressed by Hood, in an ode to his son of three years and five months--
"Thou happy, happy elf!
And yet those who have most to do with real children of flesh and blood, and not with bodiless phantoms out of books, are those who love them best and believe in them most. All experience points to the possession in childhood of a fresh spiritual life, which becomes more or less soiled in the common life of the world.
"I was then the child before whom the man blushes to day."
The man blushes to remember his boyish illusions, not because they were foolish, but because he is no longer pure-hearted enough to have them.
A child's intuitions are nearly always right; his faults arise chiefly from ignorance of the environment in which he finds himself, he is moving about in worlds not realised. Inherited tendencies to evil await the child on the same threshold of existence, enter life with him, but at the same time, God is ever giving humanity a fresh chance in these unfallen spirits who may with His sufficient grace fight the old dragon harder than he has ever been fought before, and raise the record of our nature ever so little nearer to the measure of the stature of Christ.
The white baby-soul is well worthy of reverence, and in passing out of childhood much is lost, if something be gained.
"O, would you read that Hebrew legend true,
In one sense the child is a modern discovery. In former ages children have been viewed as mere appendages to older dramatis personæ, and poets have written much about the love of parents and about children from the grown-up point of view, but few indeed of the older poets have thought of getting inside a child's mind, and noticing the outside world with a child's eyes; few of them have thought any states of mind worth recording until the child was "improved" into manhood or womanhood. Goethe and Rousseau were first inspired to see that childhood has a completeness of its own. This thought has been most fruitful in psychology.
Chaucer no doubt loved children, since his heart was open to all fresh and joyous influences, but only one of his pilgrims tells a story about a child. This was the gentle Prioresse, with her lovable affectations and wholly kind heart. Naturally she is drawn to relate the legend of a Christian child killed by Jews on account of his persistence in singing a hymn to the virgin. There is one little schoolroom scene very true to nature. The little boy asks an older one to explain to him the Latin hymn that they have to learn. The other tells him it is in honour of Christ's mother, but he does not know the meaning of the words: "I lerne song, I can but smal grammere." And the boy's devout love transfigures the dull memory lesson and makes it a thing to live and die for.
Across Spenser's pages, full of knights and ladies, there flits occasionally the figure of a child, but it has no individuality, it is only a picturesque adjunct to some heroine in woeful straits.
One cannot help feeling that Shakespeare's memories of Stratford Grammar School were not cheerful ones. The second stage of life is summed up as that of the whining school-boy with his satchel and shining morning face, creeping like a snail unwillingly to school. "Shining" does not somehow in this connection suggest the expectant smile of intelligence. It suggests yellow soap, a cornery piece, vigorously rubbed in with impartial attention to eyes and cheeks; and the comic figure of the schoolmaster introduced into "The merry wives of Windsor," implies that a stimulating method was frequently applied to the outer, but not to the inner boy. No wonder that young Marcus "would rather see the swords and hear a drum than look upon his schoolmaster." And no wonder that Willie Shakespeare himself played truant among the Stratford hedgerows, and contented himself with small Latin and less Greek.
In his historical plays Shakespeare has made live again for us some princely boys, pathetic little figures moving helplessly among the clashing passions of ambitious men and women. Young Arthur of Brittany would gladly be the son of his jailor if by that exchange of his condition he might win something of a father's love. He is so weary of the story of his own wrongs, shrilled through Europe by his mother, that he would fain give up life and title at once--
"Good my mother, peace:
When taken prisoner his only thought is for his mother--
"O this will make my mother die with grief."
A tender, home-loving boy, the irony of fate thrusts him among stony-hearted men; but even into prison he brings an atmosphere of affection. He tries to cure Hubert's headache, and watches for opportunities to do little kindnesses--
"Are you sick, Hubert? You look pale to-day.
But Arthur is not merely a pretty page; he finds courage to take one desperate leap for freedom, and dies manfully, remembering that he is an Englishman--
"Heaven take my soul and England keep my bones."
Millais' picture of "The little princes in the Tower" is a true reflection of the boys as we find them in Shakespeare's pages; the elder, conscious of the dignity of kingship, taking a firm tone with his uncle Glo'ster, but, in reality, feeling helpless in the grip of that wily monster. The tower is proposed as a suitable lodging for him--
"I do not like the Tower of any place."
But, boy-like, he is easily led away from the point to air his book knowledge about Julius Caesar, and this talk suggests that he, too, will be a hero--
"An' if I live until I be a man,
The younger boy is merrier, talks with a freer tongue, not being weighted with the responsibilities of a crown; half in jest he calls his brother "most dread lord," and by his biting witticisms enrages Glo'ster--
"O, 'tis a parlous boy!
He is not slow to express his opinion about the plans their uncle has formed for them--
York: "I shall not sleep in quiet at the Tower."
And so they pass into that haunted place, and we see them no more, but hear of them lying dead in each other's arms; a book of prayers, read together before they slept, dropped beside their pillow.
It is perhaps a little remarkable that Shakespeare has not depicted one unmanly boy, nor one who did not love his mother. Hermione's little son cannot bear to be kissed by her maids, nor spoken to as if he were a baby; he is terribly frank about personal appearance, and distracts his mother with his restlessness--
"Take the boy to you; he so troubles me
But she is soon ready for him again, and wisely sets his wits to work to invent a tale for her delight. He has one ready, full of sprites and goblins, which is so terrible that it must be whispered. In fact he is a thorough boy; but he is capable of honourable thoughts, he breaks his heart over his mother's disgrace, and dies of grief on her account.
Most of Shakespeare's children answer with some pertness, evidently expecting their wit to be admired, watching the expression on their elders' faces, and catching up their phrases, parrot-like, to be reproduced sometimes with sense, but oftener without. Lady Macduff's son merrily suggests a new father when she tells him that he is fatherless; in the world as he has known it there is no grief without a remedy. He talks with shrewd phrases about snares of the world, about honest men and liars as if he could distinguish between them, and is winning his mother to smile amid her tears, when the murderers sent by Macbeth rush in and call for Macduff as a traitor.
"Thou liest, thou shag-haired villain,"
cries the boy, and is stabbed, using his last breath to urge his mother's safety. Young England under good Queen Bess was evidently made of gallant stuff.
For a true child-student we must now come to Wordsworth, and no better work has been done than his. The slightest incident in a child's life would suggest to him deep underlying truths, and to those who are not of the same philosophic mind, his details sometimes seem puerile. Perhaps few of us have not sometimes yawned over the Idiot Boy and Peter Bell. But no doubt we should feel rebuked by his words, so good a description of apperception--
"Minds that have little to confer
Arnold truly says of Wordsworth--
"He laid us as we lay at birth,
It is this still, pale light as of a cool dawn that makes Wordsworth's poetry sometimes unacceptable to children and childlike persons; simplicity is not the refreshment to them that it is to world-weary natures; it is the habitual tone of their minds, and they enjoy in literature something of a trumpet-call, the reflection of a more coloured and varied life than that which they know.
Like Froebel, Wordsworth considers that the intuitions of a child are divine, and he dwells much upon the formative power of nature, as in that wonderful little poem which describes the education of Lucy by nature herself--
"Beauty born of murmuring sound
He traces his own love of nature to the scenes amid which his early years were spent. In the Prelude he describes his free life among the hills of Westmoreland, haunted by spiritual presences which seemed the very souls of lonely places. When he did wrong, he--
"Heard among the solitary hills
Who that has indulged in solitary wanderings as a child has not felt something of this panic terror, when trees and hills take on a sort of awful personality, reaching out wild arms, as if to draw us to inhuman companionship?
Our poet thanks the Spirit of the Universe that--
"By day or starlight thus from my first dawn
Those of us who have lived with mountains and sea and wide stretches of sky in our childhood, and feel how much such presences have done for us, must try to secure similar ennobling influences for the children who are growing up around us. Let us make them know that prim suburban walks and geometrically laid out gardens "are not all the life God fashions or reveals!"
Often in the Prelude we meet with similar thoughts to those expressed in the better-known ode, in which the poet represents the child as having dim memories of a pre-existent state. In his own childhood he says he felt "gleams like the flashings of a shield," and had "obscure feelings representative of things forgotten." With him the dignity of man is a constantly recurring theme, and when we think of his wonderful spiritual insight we shall not lightly differ from him; and however we may word our opinions, the practical fact remains that the more we believe in our children's possibilities of goodness, the more we expect from them, the more we generally receive. It is unto us according to our faith. Their apparent indifference to high thoughts need not discourage us.
"Dear child, dear girl, who walkest with me here,
One or two other points in child-nature Wordsworth has brought out with great vividness. In the poem of Alice Fell, which describes the anguish of a little orphan girl who had lost her cloak, is shown the apparent endlessness of grief to a child, how all hope and happiness seems to them lost in the present loss. We older people have at least the comfort of sometimes seeing beyond our griefs, we have learnt that smiles return to sad lips, and we have had time to encase our souls in some sort of armour against the strokes of fate.
Another point is illustrated by verses about his boy of five, who answers at random when asked which of his homes he prefers, and when pressed for a reason he looks about, notices a weathercock, and stoutly maintains that the absence of a weathercock was what made the other house more desirable. Urge them for a reason, and they are sure to invent one.
"O, dearest, dearest boy, my heart
Some other of our modern poets have left us sketches of their childish selves.
Scott describes his love of mimic battles played with shells, his delight in the tales of the old shepherd who took care of him as a boy, and whose sheep became such familiar companions that ever after the poet felt a peculiar sympathy with these creatures. Our tastes, our almost unaccountable likings and dislikings in matters of no importance can generally be traced back to incidents of very early years.
"So was it when my life began,
Cowper has drawn a very touching likeness of himself gazing drearily from the nursery window at his mother's funeral, not quite realising his loss, for he always vaguely hoped that she would return, but oppressed with an inexplicable weight of sorrow, his childish vitality sapped by the constant failure of his hopes--
"What ardently I wished I long believed,
Probably he never as a child expressed to anyone the dull aching in his heart for his mother's nightly visits to his bedside, all her gentle ministries about him, the "constant flow of love," which had it been continued to him through life, would surely have saved him from much of the mental misery which in later years clouded his reason.
When we come to the poets of our own day we can illustrate child nature with tempting profusion, but not so much from the greater writers, Tennyson, Browning, and Arnold, as from those of slighter fame. One of the chief points we notice in modern poetry is that even men have come to see that there is a great deal of character in a baby, even when its age is only counted by months. Milton can write classical sublimities with an infant as the theme, but it is a mere abstraction, a much smaller modern man sets the real baby before us--
"Your odd endearing ways,
And Swineburne does not disdain to make rondeaux of perfect music to celebrate the beauties of a baby's hands and feet. [A Baby's Feet]
In her poem of Brother and Sister, George Eliot pictures, evidently from her own life, the comradeship of a girl and boy before school parted them--
"He was the elder, and a little man
In their field walks together they formed their earliest impressions--
"Thus rambling we were schooled in deepest lore,
Those hours were seed to all my after-good;
* * * * *
Till the dire years, whose awful name is Change,
But were another childhood-world my share
In these playfellows beside a river we recognise Maggie and Tom Tulliver of the Mill on the Floss. There is the same interweaving of child lives by all the most primitive and lasting influences, and their separation by the world's hardness and conventionality. All through life a deep under-current of sympathy flowed from those early experiences together and they clung to each other out of all the world at that last hour when unrealities fall away.
Does it not seem a pity when our boys and girls are so happy together, and do each other good, that we should separate them unnecessarily? Hear Wordsworth's testimony as to the worth of his sister's companionship--
"She gave me eyes, she gave me ears;
A more spiritual man, a more intellectual woman, each more complete and more companionable, would be the outcome of an education which made no arbitrary division between the sexes.
No poet has loved children more than Longfellow, though he has not made individual studies of them.
"What the leaves are to the forest,
That to the world are children,
Out of so many who have depicted children with beauty and sympathy, I can only choose a few, and those not so much for their poetical value as because they strike me as peculiarly true to child nature.
It has been noticed by some imaginative people that in childhood they had the faculty of seeing at will long processions of men and animals, which, when once started, march on, vary, and combine their ranks as if quite independent of the seer. Under the name of A young night thought, R. L. Stephenson describes one of these processions--
"All night long and every night,
Armies, and emperors, and kings,
So fine a show was never seen
As we should expect, American verse-writers are to the front in minute observations of children's funny ways. Most mothers have known what it is to have their nerves shaken with a volley of questions of the most impossible description, and to have the probability of their own speedy departure from this planet discussed with the utmost sang froid. They know, too, what cutting things children say half innocently, half elfishly, and how unerringly they put their finger on our weak points. All these traits are brought out in Questions of the hour, by Mrs. Piatt--
"Do angels wear white dresses, say?
How many drops are in the sea?
If you should ever die, may we
Read Cinderella just once more--
Hours later from a child's white bed
I have tried to show you some real children painted by poets who saw child nature as it is in itself, not merely as it affects grown-up people. It is only by getting at this point of view ourselves that we can hope to make our child-study more than superficial. One of Kant's maxims was that men should look upon every human being as an end in himself, not as a means to subserve other men's ends. This is the truth which, by gradually leavening society, makes impossible the former slavish relations between man and man, man and woman, parent and child, and replaces them by noble comradeship and respectful loyalty.
Proofread by LNL, Sept 2020
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